“People call it the ‘Jesus Christ’ hotel,” says José Sanchez, Associate Director of Sales at Puerto Rico’s El San Juan Hotel, “because when they walk in that’s what they say.”
A few steps into the lobby of this historic property nestled on a two-mile strip of urban beach and you will understand the nickname. It’s because of the twinkling of the $2.7 million Czech crystal chandelier glistening overhead. Or the expansive ceiling of ornately carved mahogany. Once you are inside, you immediately feel a call back to an era of glamour that makes you want to freshen up your lipstick or straighten your tie before you have a seat and order a martini.
Converted in the late 1950s from what was once housing for Panamerican Airlines employees, El San Juan has long been the grand dame of Puerto Rican hotels. New upstarts moved in to steal her thunder, and for a few years (or maybe decades) she coasted on the fumes of nostalgia, even shuttering for awhile in the 1980s.
But the iconic property got new ownership in 2015, joined Hilton’s Curio Collection last year and got a $60 million dollar restoration. After reopening in February this year, the property is almost ready for its close up.
Another architectural assist
Miami has always had a fingerprint on El San Juan Hotel’s architecture and design. Miami-based Art Deco architect Roy F. France designed the original hotel. Then in the mid-1960s, another Miami Beach legend, Morris Lapidus, brought in his firm to oversee a multimillion dollar expansion that resulted in the property’s iconic lobby.
For the 2016 redesign, Jeffrey Beers International was hired, a wise choice given this is the same architectural firm behind the 2007 update of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach (another Morris Lapidus original). The New York based architect has worked extensively in Miami, with projects including restaurants China Grill and Milos, and the soon to open Miami Casa.
The projects had similar goals, explained CEO & Founder, Jeffrey G. Beers: Respecting the essence of Lapidus’ properties. “Both Fontainebleau and El San Juan are unique properties that represent a kind of theatrical social glamour seldom found today,” stated Beers. “It was imperative to us that the redesign of both properties embraces the spirit of Morris Lapidus, lacing together stunning historical details with fresh and innovative materials.”
El San Juan’s vast lobby space is now awash with regal wood accents and brilliant marble floors, warm modern fixtures and plush rugs defining multiple conversation spaces. The giant crystal chandelier was restored by a team of specialists that cleaned and shined all 7,000 pieces of the 4,000-pound marvel. The ornate mahogany panels that adorn the ceiling were all restored.
The lobby’s multiple bars – the centrally located Oval Bar, the Gold Bar and Chico Lounge – were enhanced with new lighting and seating, with textures and fabrics that ooze mid-century style. Jeffrey Beers International tapped into the property’s retro charm for the redesign.
“Following our first visit to the property, my team and I were struck by the property’s rich connection and history with iconic performers of the ’60s, such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra,” said Beers. “We wanted our design for the renovation to recapture that era of entertainment, energy and wonder.”
Dining gets an upgrade
To helm Caña, El San Juan’s signature restaurant, the search took the partners to the Miami culinary enclave of Sunset Harbour. Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn (Chef Bee to locals) of Naiyara fame, directed them to a neighboring Spanish tapas place that had a Puerto Rican chef doing amazing things. That is how the team at Sunset Harbour’s Barceloneta, Chef Juliana Rodriguez and partners Daniella Rezai and Manuel Suarez-Inclan, found themselves creating the concept and menu.
The decor defines modern tropical. Wooden beams crisscross the ceilings, with tables and chairs that blend rustic and modern styles stationed by walls covered in geometric tile designs in brown and white.
The menu offers trendy twists on Puerto Rican staples presented on plates meant for sharing. Much of the ingredients are sourced locally. The rabbit for the Chicarron de Conejo (fried rabbit) comes from a farm in Las Piedras, says General Manager Luis Solis, who came from renowned hotel El Conquistador to oversee Caña. The hen and pork are also from the island.
“Our menu has some majestic interpretations of Puerto Rican food,” explains the Fajardo native. “Chef Juliana seasons the dishes like our moms do, but with her own style.”
Highlights include the Ensalada de Chillo Crujiente, a popular dish that stars chunks of crispy fried snapper in a bed of riced chayote with avocado and cherry tomatoes soaked in soursop vinaigrette. Anyone who loves morcilla, blood sausage, will get excited about Caña’s Morcilla en Tostada de Pan de Campo, which comes accompanied with fluffy bread and onion marmalade. And those familiar with Puerto Rican gastronomy will find oxtail arepas, traditional pigeon peas and even Mofongo, mashed fried plantains with pork belly.
Caña seems to be resonating with local foodies, says Suarez-Inclan. “We have a lot of regulars. Not just tourists are coming to try Caña.”
Michael Capponi and Eric Milon know a thing or two about throwing a party. The veteran nightlife moguls behind Miami nightclubs like Mansion, Opium, B.E.D. and too many more to list, are now bringing the party to Puerto Rico with El San Juan Beach Club.
The Beach Club wraps around El San Juan’s expansive pool with a swim up bar and features 22 luxury cabanas and 60-foot-long daybeds that offer guests the chance for luxurious fun in the sun.
The Beach Club is serviced by Aquarelle, an oceanfront restaurant with a French-Caribbean menu courtesy of Michael Mina protege, Chef Gonzalo Rivera. Culinary offerings from the menu include Peruvian-style Wahoo tiradito, grilled octopus and an abundant chilled seafood platter and a list of specialty cocktails.
Capponi, who recently opened another beach club at Bimini’s Resort World Casino & Hotel, feels right at home working in Puerto Rico.
“For years I have been coming to Puerto Rico to visit its incredible rain forests, enjoy the island’s heritage and culture and stay at El San Juan Hotel,” he said.
The project, he said, is a perfect marriage of his experience in nightlife and his love of the iconic property.